Players see new path in Bala deal
Bala Devi isn’t much of a talker. Ask her a question or two, and she will give the briefest of answers. Even among teammates, Bala hardly carries herself with an air of someone who has made it a habit to demolish defence of rivals on the field over the years. Fellow India international Dalima Chhibber probably described her the best at a press conference ahead of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) semi-finals in Ludhiana last year.
“She is very different on and off the pitch. I find her fun to be around with. But when she enters the pitch, she turns into a beast,” Chhibber, whose then club Gokulam Kerala were playing Bala’s Manipur Police the next day, said. True to that reputation, Bala scored all four goals as the Manipur side won 4-2. Bala finished that seven-game campaign with 26 goals.
Those figures weren’t an aberration. In 2014, the Manipur striker played 15 games for her state and national teams together. She scored 47 goals. She has continued in the same vein since.
It was evident for years that Bala was no ordinary footballer. However, despite her qualities, Bala never had the chance to strut her stuff at an established league abroad. Her only foray outside of India was a brief stint with Maldives’ New Radiant in 2015, when she won the Maldivian women’s national championship with her team and finished as the top-scorer.
It was only last week, at 29, and over 14 years after making her senior national team debut, that Bala finally got her big break. Snapped up by Scotland’s Rangers FC after trials and a complicated process to procure a work permit, the India forward signed an 18-month agreement with the club. In the process, Bala has become the first Indian woman footballer to sign a professional contract with a club.
It is being hailed as a landmark move, especially as Indians, men or women, have struggled for playing opportunities in Europe. How Bala steps up to the level of competition in Scotland remains to be seen. But the Indian men’s national team captain Sunil Chhetri, who himself attended a brief trials at Rangers in 2011, is confident Bala will excel with the Glasgow team. “Bala’s move to Rangers is fantastic in so many ways and it’s down to the fact that it is a proper 18-month professional contract. The girl had been to Glasgow for trials, did enough to impress the coaches there and is now headed there on merit. I’m certain the level of football she will be exposed to will be of a much higher quality than what she has been used to and it’s down to her how quickly and well she adapts,” Chhetri, whose Bengaluru FC played an important role in the move, says.
“Playing your football abroad is also about being mentally strong and I’m sure she will do well on that front too. I met her the day after her signing and could tell she is raring to make the most of this opportunity.”
Bala is under no illusion about the huge jump in the quality of football she will be exposed to. She says it has only increased her eagerness to get into the thick of action right away. “I am getting an opportunity like this for the first time. I just want to make the most of it,” she says. “I feel I can adapt. The biggest and most positive change for me is they have a long season, something all of us having been fighting for in India for a long time,” Bala adds.
IN THE GENES
As a young girl, Bala started playing football with boys of her locality at her native Irengbam village, in Manipur’s Bishnupur district, about 25km from Imphal. Playing as a striker came naturally to her, she says, thanks to her father.
“My father used to be a footballer. He played as a striker and is the one who introduced me to football,” explains the new Rangers player, who has a twin sister and two brothers.
In 2001, Bala joined local club Irengbam Cultural and Sporting Association (ICSA). It is from here that her career took off. Within a year, she was in the state youth team. By 2005, Bala was in the India U-17 team. That year, she also turned out for the U-19 and the senior national teams.
However, she would soon realise that being a woman footballer isn’t a rewarding experience, particularly in India.
Between 2007 and 2010, the national team remained out of action for 27 months, leading to FIFA de-listing India from the women’s international rankings. With no national league then and a very short annual national championship, which itself didn’t take place in 2012 and 2013, opportunities were limited.
When Bala and six others from Manipur, including another senior player, Kamala Devi, wrote to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2018, airing their grievances against a member of the national team coaching staff, the national governing body refused to engage with any of the parties. It led to a boycott by the players for over six months before head coach Maymol Rocky recalled most of them.
Kamala, the 2017 AIFF Player of the Year, continues to be out of the national team.
chance for others
Representing Gokulam Kerala in the ongoing IWL, in its fourth edition, Kamala says she is only focusing on things in her control. The Manipuri midfielder says Bala’s move is significant as it may open the doors for other Indian players. “Everyone is very happy this has finally happened. I feel like I am myself going to play abroad,” she says.
“Bala’s move to Rangers is a message for all young footballers here, that their doors to playing in good leagues abroad are not closed. I feel this has come a few years late. For example, had (former India captain) Bembem Devi got the chance to play abroad, perhaps we already might have a few more playing outside. Nevertheless, this is still very significant. Bala has opened the account; I am hopeful other Indian players will follow her in the coming years.”
But there’s still a long way to go, as Bala herself stresses. The striker was granted special exemption while applying for a work permit in Scotland, despite not fulfilling a criterion, which is playing for a national team that is ranked among the top 40 in the world—India are 57th.
“Our players have to work hard to get opportunities abroad. Because of our international ranking, it gets difficult to get a work permit. Those who have played the World Cup, from teams like South Korea, for example, can go and play anywhere because they don’t have much trouble fulfilling these criteria. In my case, they made an exception due to my 14-year national team experience and other reasons,” she explains.
Bala’s transfer will not significantly alter the ground realities of women’s football in India. Nor will it immediately open the floodgates for the country’s players to play in stronger leagues abroad. But it could be a start, and as many would argue, a deserving opportunity for the best player of the current generation in India.